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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Cookies, on December 7th, 2015.

no_bake_holiday_cookie_cubes

A cookie. A little bar. A little square of goodness. Chocolate, cookie crumbs (you’ll have to read below to learn what types), corn flakes (they are the little light colored horizontal striations you see buried in the cubes), nuts, dried cranberries and speculoos. What, you say? I know, you’ll need to read more about that below.

When I saw the picture of this little gem on Dorie Greenspan’s website, I just knew I needed to try them. The recipe was written up for her column at the Washington Post. What intrigued me were several things: (1) it was a no-bake cookie; (2) it called for 2 things I knew nothing about – Biscoff cookies (where have I been?) and speculoos (another, where have I been?); and (3) it was chocolate (yum). First, though, I had to FIND these elusive ingredients.

biscoff_cookie_package

Going down the aisle at my grocery store I found the Biscoff cookies. Because I rarely buy store-bought cookies, I guess I’ve just never noticed. They’re a butter spice cookie, probably made with dark brown sugar, I’d guess. They’re crispy. The manufacturer says they’re “Europe’s Favorite Cookie with Coffee.” Not remembering how much I needed, I ended up buying 2 packages. I only needed one. But, if I hadn’t found the other elusive ingredient I would have used the 2nd package to make the cookie butter.

speculoos_cookie_butter_trader_joesIn the write-up, Dorie mentioned that Trader Joe’s makes a speculoos cookie butter which is very similar to the Biscoff cookie, in a butter form, and sure enough, they do. Right next to their version of Nutella. In a jar (see photo) and I scooped a spoonful of it up for you to see – it has the same look and texture as peanut butter. It’s jarred, and it says right on it, don’t refrigerate it. Okay, got it. I used most of the jar for the filling of this cookie. Don’t know what I’ll ever use the rest of it for – maybe over the holidays someone will want to spread it on toast. Being me, I had to go look up more about speculoos – from wikipedia: Speculoos is a type of spiced shortcrust biscuit, traditionally baked for consumption on or just before St Nicholas’ feast in the Netherlands, Belgium, and around Christmas in the western and southern parts of Germany (and they make it into a spread, just like Biscoff does).

In my pantry I had corn flakes. I also had ample dried cranberries, and I chose to use almonds in this – you can use any kind of nut you’d like, or use a combination. The recipe calls for just 1/2 cup of nuts. First you make the cookie base. I whizzed up nearly all of one cookie package in the food processor until it was fine crumbs. Melted butter was added, then it was patted into the 9×9 pan – actually it might be an 8×8 pan, which is what Dorie calls for. I do suggest you press the cookie crumb layer firmly – if you don’t it will fall apart when you try to cut it into cubes later.

melting_choc_speculoos_butterThat is put into the freezer to firm up while you make the filling. In a big saucepan you melt butter, the speculoos cookie spread/butter and 12 ounces of chocolate. Dorie prefers a dark chocolate, which is what I used. Milk chocolate can be substituted, though. I used a flame-tamer to do that part because the mixture was very thick (the speculoos particularly – it’s sticky like peanut butter) and I didn’t want it to burn. I let it cool a bit, then added the corn flakes, dried cranberries and almonds. You can also use raisins, dried cherries or chopped up dried apricots instead of the cranberries. You stir all this together until you can’t see any more of the cornflake pieces, then gently scoop it on top of the frozen crumb crust. Press it down firmly all over (I didn’t do that quite enough) so the chocolate layer adheres to the crumbs.

layers_no_bake_cookiesThe mixture is spread out clear to the corners and you do squish it out and down as best you can. Chill several hours, or freeze. I can’t imagine trying to cut this from a frozen state. Getting this block of stuff out of the pan was a bit of challenge – I dipped the 8×8 pan into a pan of hot water for about a minute (being careful to not splash any water into the cookies), then used a narrow metal spatula to free all the edges. It came out easily at that point (Dorie actually recommends blowing a hair dryer all around the bottom and sides of the pan); I righted it, then cut it into cubes. Dorie recommended 7 sliced strips – I was only able to get 6 from my pan, then I carefully cut each of the long slices into cubes, so I got about 40. A serrated knife did not work for this (though Dorie suggests it). I found a big chef’s knife worked better. And as it was, I messed up a bunch of them where the crumb crust came unstuck. I’ve packaged them up in a plastic box and they’re in the refrigerator. Before serving, allow them to warm at room temp for about 15 minutes, Dorie suggests. My cubes were not very uniform – Dorie’s look like they’re cut with precision. It’s a bit hard to do – but that won’t matter to the taste of them.

What’s GOOD: love the flavor of these – the cookies give a different flavor and texture – the crunch in them is wonderful. I liked the corn flakes. All of it is good, and although it’s a no-bake cookie, you’ll still spend a bit of time making this. But it’s not like rolling out Christmas cookies, using a cookie cutter, then baking. I would think children would LOVE these. Haven’t tried them on any yet, but I will.

What’s NOT: nothing other than some time – saying it’s a no-bake cookie just means you don’t have to heat the oven. You’ll still spend a bit of time making them.

printer-friendly PDF and MasterCook 14/15 file (click link to open recipe)

* Exported from MasterCook *

No-Bake Cookie Cubes

Recipe By: Dorie Greenspan, column in Washington Post, 12/2015
Serving Size: 49 (or less)

CRUST:
1 1/4 cups Biscoff cookies — or graham cracker crumbs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — (3/4 stick) melted
TOPPING:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — (3/4 stick) cut into 6 pieces
1 cup spice cookie spread — such as Biscoff/Lotus or Speculoos
12 ounces chocolate — preferably semisweet or bittersweet, coarsely chopped (may substitute milk chocolate)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt — (1/4 to 1/2)
4 cups corn flakes
1/2 cup raisins — or dried cranberries, chopped dried cherries or chopped dried apricots (or a mix of fruits)
1/2 cup slivered almonds — (toasted or plain), shelled pistachios, chopped walnuts or chopped pecans (or a mix of nuts)

1. CRUST: Pulse cookies until fine crumbs, then place in a medium bowl, pour over the melted butter, and, using a fork or your fingertips, mix until the crumbs are moist and evenly coated. Turn out into the 8-inch square pan, then use your fingertips to press and compact the crumbs into a crust. Freeze the crust while you make the topping.
2. TOPPING: Put the butter in a LARGE heavy-bottomed saucepan (such as a 3-to-4-quart pan), then add the cookie spread; finally, add the chocolate and salt (use the lesser amount if you’ll be adding salted nuts) to the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring as the ingredients melt, to form a smooth, glossy mixture. Turn off the heat and stir in the cornflakes, dried fruit and nuts, mixing until all the add-ins are coated with the chocolate mixture.
3. Remove the crust from the freezer; pour the topping over it and use a spatula to spread the topping across the crust, making sure to get it into the corners. Press firmly so the filling sticks to the bottom crust. Refrigerate for 4 hours; you want it to be solid.
4. To unmold, either warm the bottom and sides of the pan with hot air from a hair dryer (Dorie Greenspan’s preferred method) or dip the pan into hot water for about a minute, taking care not to let the water splash onto the chocolate.
5. Place a piece of parchment or wax paper over a rack or cutting board, and have another cutting board at hand. Run a round-edged table knife around the sides of the pan, and turn the pan over onto the paper. If the cookie slab doesn’t drop out of the pan, apply more heat. Once the slab is unmolded, carefully flip it over onto the other cutting board so the crust side is down.
6. It’s easiest to cut the slab into cubes using a long chef’s knife or a serrated slicing knife and a sawing motion. Cut cookie cubes that are roughly 1 inch square by slicing the slab into 7 rows and then cutting each row crosswise into 7 cookies. Store the cubes in the refrigerator or freezer, and allow them to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes before serving. Biscoff’s are available at most grocery stores. Speculoos butter is available at Trader Joe’s. It resembles peanut butter.
Per Serving (not accurate as I forgot to add nutrition info on the speculoos): 111 Calories; 7g Fat (54.9% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 12g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 58mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on December 8th, 2015:

    I have had my eye on this recipe, too. Bought the Biscoff last week, but was planning on using graham crackers for the crust. Now I am wondering–do you think the crust is necessary? You mentioned that it wanted to separate from the rest of the cube. Is the filling part firm enough to hold its shape and be enjoyed on its own?

    I remember when Biscoff spread started appearing in my supermarket, maybe five years ago. At the time, I didn’t think much of the idea. I eat peanut butter for the protein, and I couldn’t see spreading carbs on carbs. However, in the end, I couldn’t resist at least trying it, as I have an insatiable appetite for trying new tastes and textures. It was interesting, but I’ve never bought it again. I avoided spreading it on toast and such, but did enjoy some on apple slices a couple of times. The rest languished in the cupboard until it got old and I threw it out. I’ve seen it used in many applications since then so will find a way to use up any extra somehow this time.

    Hi Donna – well, the filling did separate from the crust on SOME of the pieces I cut. I had a hard time cutting these so they were very precise, but in the long run, I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much if they’re irregularly shaped. Perhaps if they were cut from a frozen state they might be better shaped (I don’t know that, just guessing) but I think cutting them would require a really strong arm.

    The speculoos spread at Trader Joe’s is just about what you need for the filling – there was a tiny bit left in the jar and I gave it to my friend Cherrie who doesn’t really like jam. It’s so funny – you and I have a lot in common – I just can’t imagine (and thought this myself) that why would I spread a carb (cookie) spread on top of toast (carb). We’re on the same page! I’d think children would love it.

    What I will tell you is that everyone – absolutely everyone I’ve served these to (about 10 people so far) have just raved about it and have asked for the recipe. What most everyone says is – wow, these aren’t all that sweet. They really aren’t, and it’s surprising because there is a lot of sweet stuff in them, but maybe the corn flakes help balance the sugar. I don’t know. They are really delicious, though. But in answer to your question, yes, I think the crumb crust is important. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hand full of melting chocolate everywhere you touch the cube. With the crust, you might get away without chocolate on your fingers. Maybe. I think the crumb crust helps balance the sugar too. The Biscoff, although a cookie, must not have as much sugar as some cookies (haven’t checked). So, hope that answers your questions. Let me know what you think! . . . carolyn

  2. hddonna

    said on December 9th, 2015:

    Thanks for the tips. I think I’ll wait until I can get some speculoos cookies for the crust–was just going to use graham crackers, but if I’m going to make it at all, I might as well do it up right! Wish we had a Trader Joe’s closer to home. It takes a bit of planning to get to one, and I’ve already made my Christmas baking run there. But if they don’t have Biscoff, my supermarket does carry more than one brand of windmill cookies, which are a type of speculoos cookie.

    Also, I’d forgotten until reading your post that the recipe called for cornflakes. Glad you mentioned that–I need to get some.

    Do let me know what you think of them . . . carolyn

  3. hddonna

    said on December 24th, 2015:

    I made these a couple days ago, and I’m glad I was forewarned about some of the problems they presented. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep some of the same problems from happening for me. I lined my pan with foil and popped the slab right out of the pan with no heating. Tried the serrated knife, but it didn’t work well for me either. Switched to my old, cheap thin Kiwi knife, which worked fine, and I turned the slab crust up for cutting so the crust wouldn’t crumble. But all the crust fell right off each piece as I picked it up and turned it upright to place it in a container. I did get 7 rows each way, but the result was little towers instead of cubes. I think they are delicious, but messy to eat, as the chocolate melts and the crust crumbles. I’m the only one who’s tasted them so far-whether I make them again depends on how my family likes them. I used dried cherries and pistachios, by the way.

    I have, still, about 10-12 of the cubes left in my refrigerator. And, despite the difficulties I had with them, I absolutely loved these cookies. Next time I’ll try to make the crust more moist (butter?) so it will hold together better. And I think pressing down the chocolate/corn flake mixture into the crust will help keep them together. Mine fell apart also, but I just LOVED them enough that I want to make them again. Not this week, but sometime soon. I’ll have to go research online and see if other people have had trouble. The cubes I cut never looked as pretty as the ones in the newspaper article, so I’m not sure what worked for them. I hope your family enjoys them, Donna! . . . carolyn t

  4. hddonna

    said on December 27th, 2015:

    These went over very well. When my son asked where “those fudgy things” were, I knew I’d be making them again. As for the crust falling off, I have an idea. I noticed that the cubes left out on the cookie tray for a few hours started melding with the crust better. Then it occurred to me that the topping is put onto a frozen crust. I had noticed that the crust was very buttery and moist when I made it. There were actually some very wet spots. But since the crust is frozen before the topping is added, the butter firms up and doesn’t adhere to the topping. Next time, I will freeze it as directed so the topping can be added without messing up the crust, but then I will leave it at room temperature for a while and press down again before chilling the whole thing. I like the taste best when they are at room temperature, so will leave them out longer than fifteen minutes when serving them. Finally, I intend to make them in a 9-inch square pan instead of 8-inch so that a one-inch square will not be taller than it is wide. I had about 6 cookies left from the package when I made the crust, so I think I’ll use the whole package. I don’t think more butter would be necessary, but if they don’t look thoroughly moistened, a bit more could be added before spreading the crumbs. Since I found that my thin, smooth Kiwi brand knife worked best for slicing, I might try heating the knife before cutting so as to get smoother cuts. (The Kiwi looks like a small cleaver but is as thin as a paring knife.)

    Great ideas Donna. Thanks for thinking it through. . . Carolyn t

  5. hddonna

    said on December 29th, 2015:

    Further note on cutting: I just cut one of the cubes in half when it was at room temperature, and the cut was very smooth and straight. Bringing the bars to room temperature before cutting would apparently result in much neater squares!

    Ah, that’s great news, Donna. Thank you! . . . carolyn t

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